Politics lesson: Bartels recalls role in redistricting fight

Professor Larry Bartels' research on politics and public affairs never included a close study of New Jersey politics. But when the chief justice of the state Supreme Court asked him to play a central role in the state's redistricting battle this spring, Bartels was given a front-row seat to one of the fiercest turf wars in Jersey politics.

Bartels was selected to serve as the non-partisan member of New Jersey's legislative redistricting commission, which is convened once a decade to redraw the state's legislative map. The commission is made up of five Democrats and five Republicans; when it could not reach a consensus, Bartels was appointed to cast the tie-breaking vote.

For Bartels, the Donald Stokes Professor in Public and International Affairs, that meant being holed up in the Doral Forrestal Hotel in Plainsboro for 10 days with a couple dozen politicians and aides who had just one thing on their minds: winning over Larry Bartels.

Bartels recalls the atmosphere on the first day, when he convened the participants in a hotel conference room. "There wasn't a lot of cordiality in their discussions with each other - I think they had already started to have a little bit of frayed tempers with each other - but both sides were clearly being cordial to me," he said.

What followed were 12-hour days spent shuttling back and forth between the Democrats and the Republicans, evaluating competing proposals and trying to prod each side to compromise. "It was intense," Bartels said. There was a lot at stake: Republicans have controlled the state Senate and Assembly for the last decade, but redrawing the lines of New Jersey's 40 districts could alter that balance of power in November's elections.

On Day 10, Bartels told the Republicans he had decided to vote for a modified version of a plan that the Democrats had drawn up. Voices were raised. The meeting grew rancorous. Eventually, all but one Republican would boycott the final vote, when Bartels cast his lot with the Democrats.

Bartels did not take it personally when things turned tense, or when the Republicans got a temporary court order to stop the new map from being adopted. Nor did he gripe when the Republicans filed suit against him, accusing him of approving a map that discriminated against minority voters by breaking up several predominantly minority districts. A panel of three federal judges unanimously rejected the Republicans' claims and upheld the new districts. The case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I think the complaints and the high tempers are pretty understandable given the importance of what's at stake," said Bartels.

"I tried to remember all the way through this process that I was the only person whose career wasn't on the line because whatever happened, I was going to come back and teach my courses and do my research," he said. "But for these people, this was one of the most important things that they can be involved in, both from the point of view of their own personal political ambitions and from the point of view of what they're trying to accomplish for the state."

Republicans accused Bartels of favoring the Democrats, but he remained unfazed by the charges because "I don't have any very strong interest in my public political image, one way or another," he said. He was equally unperturbed when the media focused so much attention on the fact that he hasn't voted in an election in more than 15 years. He doesn't vote because he doesn't want to have a stake in the political system he studies.

His 12- and 14-year-old daughters, however, had a more emotional reaction to the criticism. "They said, 'Why are all these nasty people saying nasty things about our father?'" he recalled.

Following his brief tenure in the spotlight, Bartels has returned to his research, which focuses on voter behavior and the role of public opinion and the media in the American political system. He arrived at Princeton in 1991 after being appointed to the Stuart Chair of Communications and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His 1988 book, "Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice," won the American Political Science Association's Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award, which recognizes excellence in writing about government, politics or international affairs. Bartels' research has focused on using statistical analysis to decipher the role of public opinion in American politics.

Although Bartels will not be adding New Jersey politics to his areas of research, his close-up view of the state's political wrangling reinforced one of the conclusions he had reached in his scholarship. "I think one of the things that's wrong with public perceptions of the political process is that people don't give politicians as much credit as they deserve for being intelligent and hardworking," Bartels said. "I wasn't surprised to find that, even in these difficult circumstances, they performed very capably."

Bartels will spend some more time thinking about New Jersey politics this summer when he writes an account of the 10 days he spent at the Doral Forrestal for a political science journal. There is strong national interest in New Jersey's redistricting process, which is viewed as a test case for redistricting battles in other states.

Bartels said he thinks the process would work more efficiently if the state did not wait to appoint a non-partisan member to the commission until the two parties fail to reach a consensus. "Given that it seems unlikely that the Republicans and Democrats are ever going to come to an agreement among themselves, it might be just as well to face that fact right away, appoint an 11th member, and let that person have more time to get up to speed and develop the capacity to participate in this process, which is a complex feat of political engineering," he said.

Managing that intricate political dance with little advance notice took its toll on Bartels. "I actually lost ten pounds in ten days," he said, because the frenetic schedule left him with little time to eat. "It didn't hurt me, but it's probably not the best way to lose weight."

Contact: Jennifer Greenstein (609) 258-3601